26th July 2013

Over 100 Scottish teachers have been to prison since the beginning of 2013 – but not because of any crime they had committed. They have visited Her Majesty’s Prisons Edinburgh and Aberdeen as part of a new initiative, facilitated by Families Outside and the Scottish Prison Service, which aims to help professionals explore the impact that the imprisonment of a close relative can have on children and to learn how school communities can provide key support for them and their carers.

As the teachers make their way through security, a range of emotions is evident on their faces: anxiety (“Will I be searched?”); nervousness (“What awaits me on the other side of that door?”); worry (“Have I done something wrong; brought something in that I shouldn’t have?”); and fear (“What will that sniffer dog do?”) – the same things, in fact, that a child might feel when visiting a prison in addition to the shame and stigma that parental imprisonment inevitably brings, not to mention the trauma of watching mum or dad being taken away.

In the visits room, struck by the distance between the prisoner’s seat and those of the visitors, as well as the austerity of the surroundings (“It just looks so bare!”), the teachers are presented with some statistics:

• A third of children of imprisoned parents witness the arrest of their parent;

• Maintaining close family ties reduces reoffending by up to 6 times;

• 50% of prisoners lose contact with their families;

• Children with a parent in prison are three times more likely to develop serious mental health issues than children in the general population; and (the one which always causes the most audible gasp)

• An estimated 27,000 children in Scotland experience the imprisonment of a parent every year (estimates for England and Wales are 200,000) – double the rate of parental divorce.

But these sessions are not just about numbers. Statistics are important, but the stories behind them really make the impact.

The teachers enter into, and discuss, stories based on real children’s experiences. They hear about Jodie* (age 10) who, since her dad went to prison, hasn’t been invited to any classmates’ parties. Her attendance at school is patchy, and her teacher has found it hard to make contact with Jodie’s mum.

Then there is Josh (14) who, because his mum is in prison, is now living with his aunt and has had to change school. Rumours have started that Josh is a thief, and there are concerns about his use of alcohol.

Chloe (11) won’t sleep in her own bed since witnessing the arrest of her stepdad, and she is withdrawing from school life.

These stories are complex, and there are no easy answers offered, but they give teachers an opportunity to confront the issues faced by the children of prisoners: grief, trauma, bullying, isolation, change of care-giver and school, victimisation, carrying secrets, and harmful behaviour patterns. They learn that children affected by imprisonment are extremely vulnerable and yet remain largely overlooked within the school system, in effect serving their own sentence. They realise that the assumption that children of prisoners will end up in prison too (one that children affected unfortunately all too often pick up on), is devastating and limits their potential.

Most importantly, however, teachers are learning that by reaching out sensitively to families and offering support, they might make all the difference to the children in their care and that ultimately this could help to reduce reoffending as well as decrease intergenerational crime. Although the Continuing Professional Development sessions are currently aimed at teachers, they could equally apply to social workers and other professionals working with vulnerable young people; this is about a coordinated approach between the professionals, and there is something about entering the world of the other that helps enormously in creating understanding and compassion.

As each session draws to an end and they make their way out of the prison, participants acknowledge that they are now more confident in how to recognise, engage and support children and families affected by imprisonment. Comments include “this was such an interesting and valuable experience, and I will now be more empathic.” And another: “I’m quite changed by what I saw and heard.” Perhaps we need to send more teachers to prison!

* All names have been changed.

To find out more about the work of Families Outside and support for families affected, contact Sarah Roberts on sarah.roberts@familiesoutside.org.uk

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Author: rmchristen